Warfare in the Spanish Reconquista Era III

A century later Alfonso VIII chanced the future of his kingdom on a pitched battle at Alarcos on 19 July 1195. There, a few miles south of Toledo, a castle, still unfinished, was situated on a small hill adjacent to the Guadiana River and overlooked a broad plain. Thinking that the Almohads were weakened by rebellions in Morocco and elsewhere, he evidently concluded that he could defeat them on the battlefield and refused to await reinforcements from Alfonso IX. The Caliph al-Manṣūr had the advantage in numbers and also opted to give his men a day of rest rather than accept the challenge offered by the Christians. On the following morning the Almohads, well-rested and organized in tribal groups each with its own standard, initiated the combat. The Christians, disconcerted, charged in a disorderly manner, dispersing some of the volunteers who had come to participate in the holy war; but the main Almohad lines held firm and executed a flanking movement that encircled the Christians. To rescue the situation Alfonso VIII brought up his reserves, but the caliph responded with the full force of his army. In the ensuing mêlée the Christians were driven back and the king had to flee. Those seeking refuge in the castle of Alarcos were shortly forced to surrender. The battle had raged from early morning until sundown. Many other nearby castles surrendered or were abandoned by the Christians, but the caliph did not press his advantage, returning instead to Seville. In the next two years, however, Almohad forces ravaged the Tagus River valley.

The battle of Alarcos was an ignominious defeat for Alfonso VIII, but on 16 July 1212 at Las Navas de Tolosa he redeemed himself with a glorious triumph. Marching southward from Toledo the crusaders seized most of the fortresses lost as a result of Alarcos. As they passed through the Puerto del Muradal they encountered the Almohad army. The battle likely occurred about seven or eight miles north of Las Navas between Santa Elena and Miranda del Rey. The Christians were grouped in three ranks, each organized in a vanguard and a rearguard. Alfonso VIII held the center, while Pedro II occupied the left and Sancho VII of Navarre the right. Lightly armed cavalry, including volunteers dedicated to the holy war, formed the first rank of the Almohad army. The main force consisted of troops from both Morocco and Andalucía. Combat commenced when the crusader vanguard broke through the first enemy lines but the Almohad van stiffened, prompting some of the urban militiamen to flee. Fearing disaster, Alfonso VIII moved up with his rearguard while Pedro II and Sancho VII also joined the attack. At that point the Caliph al-Nāṣir fled, leaving his army to be cut to pieces. In the ensuing days Alfonso VIII temporarily occupied Baeza and Úbeda, but exhaustion and fear of famine forced him to return to Toledo. Although it was not apparent at the time, his victory at Las Navas de Tolosa opened the entire Guadalquivir valley to Christian conquest.

In the three battles just described several factors had a paramouint influence on the outcome. The Muslims appear to have had numerical superiority at Zallāqa and Alarcos, whereas at Las Navas the forces seem to have been evenly matched. Secondly, Yūsuf ibn Tashufīn and al-Manṣūr, the victors at Zallāqa and Alarcos, exercised more effective generalship. Both Alfonso VI and Alfonso VIII underestimated their opponents, and overconfidence probably led them into battles that they should have avoided. The Muslim tactic of giving way and feigning retreat evidently fooled the Christians at Zallāqa and Alarcos, who were then surrounded as the enemy swept around their flanks. Alfonso VIII probably learned something from his experience at Alarcos and put it to good use at Las Navas; the caliph, however, seems to have remained passive during the battle until he fled in disgrace. The terrain at Zallāqa and Alarcos apparently did not favor one side over the other, though at Zallāqa the Almoravids had the river Guadiana at their back; that could have slowed their retreat to Badajoz, if that had been necessary. The battlefield of Las Navas was much hillier than at either of the other sites but the Christians were able to overcome the obstacles posed. Although the chroniclers tend to emphasize the action of the cavalry in all these battles, infantry forces were present as well.

The Question of Numbers

Any attempt to determine the number of troops engaged in any given campaign is a frustrating task. Documents recording numbers are generally lacking, and chroniclers’ statements are often exaggerated and must be viewed with great scepticism. Numbers varied considerably depending on whether the military action was a raid, a seige, or a battle. Some raiding parties probably counted no more than 50 to 100 or 200 to 300, while others were substantially larger, approaching the size of armies. The number of soldiers involved in a siege probably changed over the course of the operation. Some contingents likely did not arrive at the outset, perhaps in accordance with a preconceived plan, while others left early, citing foral limitations on their service. During the several months of the siege of Seville Fernando III commanded perhaps 5,000 to 7,000 men.

Numbers given by the sources of soldiers engaged in pitched battles are generally unacceptable. Muslim authors related that at Zallāqa the Almoravids had 500, or 12,000, or 20,000 light cavalry, and estimated the Christians at 40,000, 60,000, or 80,000 horse and 200,000 foot; the number killed ranged from 10,000 to 54,000, or 300,000. Reilly, however, estimated the Christian army at about 2,500 men, consisting of perhaps 750 heavily armed and 750 lightly armed knights, and about 1,000 squires and footsoldiers. Muslim sources, all of a later date, recorded the death of 30,000 Christians at Alarcos, and the capture of 5,000, while only 500 Muslims were killed; according to al-Maqqarī there were 146,000 dead Christians, and 30,000 prisoners; the booty consisted of 150,000 tents, 80,000 horses, 100,000 mules, and 400,000 asses. Prior to Las Navas, Alfonso VIII estimated that 2,000 knights with their squires, 10,000 sergeants on horseback and up to 50,000 sergeants on foot came to Toledo. Archbishop Rodrigo stated that the Almohads had 185,000 knights and an incalculable number of infantry, and that their losses amounted to 200,000 men. Muslim sources related that only 600 out of 600,000 Almohad soldiers survived the battle. Such figures are wholly unreliable.

The numbers for Jaime I’s crusades are also difficult to calculate because of discrepancies in the sources. According to the number of knights and sergeants pledged by prelates and nobles for the Mallorcan Crusade, cited above, the king may have had anywhere from 9,000 to 13,000 men. While he noted that he embarked 1,000 men in his ships, the Latin Chronicle reported that his letters stated that he had scarcely seventy knights and 13,000 foot when he took Mallorca. At Portopí, according to the king, 2,000 Muslims attempted to prevent the landing of 4,000 to 5,000 men, and the Muslims trying to dislodge the Christians from Puig de la Cebolla numbered 600 knights and 11,000 foot. Whether the size of the Muslim army was as great as reported cannot be ascertained.

Without detailed records it is impossible to determine the size of armies clashing in pitched battles. The number on each side might fall between 1,000 and 10,000 men, and perhaps no more than 3,000 to 5,000 were involved in any one of the battles mentioned. Exaggerating the number of enemy soldiers or those killed, of course, was one way of exalting the triumph of one’s coreligionists or explaining away a terrible defeat.

The Distribution of the Spoils

Booty taken in the innumerable raids typical of frontier warfare was a means of enriching oneself or of attaining higher status. A footsoldier who captured a horse and became a mounted warrior, for example, altered his situation permanently. The capture of enemy arms also replenished the store of weapons. The spoils of war contributed mightily to the economic growth of frontier towns. Nevertheless, the evidence can hardly be quantified, as the chronicles speak in general terms of booty taken. The Toledan militia, after routing the kings of Córdoba and Seville, “took a lot of gold and silver, royal standards, precious vestments, excellent arms, chain mail, helmets, shields, excellent horses with their saddles, and mules and camels laden with great riches.” The day before Las Navas Archbishop Rodrigo threatened with excommunication anyone who abandoned pursuit of the enemy to gather booty. The Almohads left behind “gold, silver, precious garments, silk hangings, and many other precious ornaments, as well as a lot of money and precious vases,” besides camels and other animals, and tents; Alfonso VIII sent the caliph’s tent to the pope and the tent flap to Las Huelgas de Burgos.

Quarrels inevitably erupted concerning the disposal of booty. The municipal fueros, however, stipulated that booty was communal property and prescribed an elaborate process for distribution. Everything was gathered and recorded under the supervision of quadrilleros representing municipal parishes. An auction was held, usually in the town square, under the presidency of the principal magistrate, and the money realized was apportioned among the victors. First, however, families were compensated for the loss of a relative, a horse, another animal, or equipment. Next, muncipal officials who had served with the militia were paid, and those who had distinguished themselves in combat were rewarded. A fifth of all booty, owed to the king as a sign of sovereignty, was in effect a form of taxation that enabled him to execute his functions. At times he consigned a portion to the Military Orders. Once these claims were satisfied the remainder was distributed among the rank and file. People who provided animals or equipment, archers, commanders, surgeons, chaplains, and clerks received additional shares because of their special contributions. The mayordomo mayor had the responsibility for supervising the distribution of booty taken by a royal army; each man was compensated according to the number of men, arms, and animals that he brought to the campaign.

The greatest form of booty was plunder seized when a fortress surrendered. Aside from people, animals, and movable goods, there was also real estate to be distributed. In the twelfth century quadrilleros or municipal company commanders apportioned land among the soldiers planning to settle in the new community. In the thirteenth century royal partitioners assigned houses, shops, farmland, vineyards, and orchards to the conquerors in accordance with their status and contribution to victory. The most comprehensive repartimientos or books recording this distribution of property are those for Mallorca, Valencia, and Seville.

Casualties and Ransoming Captives

Casualties were a consequence of all military actions. Numbers were sometimes reasonably stated, but Alfonso VIII’s assertion that 100,000 Muslims died at Las Navas was a gross exaggeration; equally absurd is his statement that only twenty-five or thirty Christians were killed. Physicians and surgeons often accompanied militia forces and were paid specific fees for treating the wounded. The latter were compensated for injuries and were often cared for in hospitals. In 1225 Jaime I placed all the hospitals in his realms under royal protection. The Military Orders maintained hospitals to care for their wounded. Calatrava, for example, had hospitals at Guadalerzas, Évora, Cogolludo, El Collado de Berninches, and Santa Olalla. The commander of Santa Olalla was obliged to accompany royal armies “to provide for knights and footsoldiers, both the wounded and the poor, the ill and the sick, and to take a chaplain with him to offer viaticum to the wounded, if necessary, and a master of surgery to give medicine to the wounded.” The hospitals of the Order of Santiago were situated at Toledo, Cuenca, Alarcón, Moya, Huete, Talavera, Uclés, Castrotoraf, and Salamanca.

The king and the most powerful magnates had their own physicians, but only three kings seem to have been injured or wounded: Alfonso VI was wounded at Zallāqa; Afonso I broke his leg attempting to escape from Badajoz; and during the siege of Valencia, a bolt from a crossbow creased Jaime I’s forehead. The primitive character of medieval surgery is illustrated in Cantiga 126. A bolt fired from a crossbow lodged in a Christian’s neck, but the surgeon’s initial attempt to extract it was unsuccessful; he then vainly attached the bolt to a crossbow, hoping to fire it. Happily for the wounded man the Virgin Mary, so we are told, was able to pull it out.

One of the hazards of war, both for soldiers and civilians, was the possibility of being captured. The loss of “liberty which is the most precious thing that people can have in this world” was sufficient cause for grief, especially because captivity, aside from the separation from family and friends, was usually quite harsh. Some captives never returned home and others were subjected to torture to force their conversion to Islam. Dominican and Franciscan friars were sent to attend to the spiritual needs of captives in Morocco so they would not apostasize. Sometimes prisoners escaped or were liberated by victorious armies. Both Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Santo Domingo de Silos came to be known as wonderworkers who could break chains and set captives free.

Family members often sought to ransom captured relatives but not every family could raise the money. Catalan confraternities received bequests for that purpose, and municipal fueros regularized the redemption of captives, allowing families to purchase Muslim slaves to be exchanged for Christian captives. Merchants functioning as professional ransomers often turned over ransom money or executed the exchange. The ransomer, called an exea (Ar., shīʾa, guide), or later, alfaqueque (Ar., al-fakkāk, redeemer) was paid a commission of 10 percent for each captive ransomed or a gold maravedí for every prisoner exchanged. The alfaqueque, appointed by a municipality or the king, was expected to be honest and to know Arabic. The hospitals of the Military Orders, such as the Holy Redeemer at Teruel in Aragón, not only cared for the wounded, but also coordinated the process of raising ransom money, and welcomed captives after their release. The hospitals maintained by Calatrava and Santiago, mentioned above, also ransomed captives, but as the need declined by the middle of the thirteenth century, they began to disappear.

The French Order of the Trinity and the Order of La Merced were specifically dedicated to the redemption of captives. St. Jean de Mathe (d. 1213), a Provençal, the founder of the Trinitarians, received Innocent III’s approbation and planned to devote a third of the Order’s revenues to ransom. Trinitarian hospitals were situated at Toledo, Valencia, and other towns. The Order also benefited from the partition of Seville. The origins of the Order of La Merced can be traced to 1230 when a citizen of Barcelona made a bequest to St. Pere Nolasc for ransoming captives. Within a few years the house of Santa Eulalia of Barcelona and others in Mallorca and Girona were established; Gregory IX confirmed the Order in 1235. Ten years later Innocent IV cited the Order’s sixteen houses in the Crown of Aragón and three in Castile. The Mercedarians began by collecting alms to pay ransom but in time they journeyed to Muslim lands to attempt to secure the liberation of captives.

Naval Forces

Naval forces facilitated the capture of some of the most important Muslim ports. Fleets of sailing ships, or naves, and galleys transported troops, horses, and supplies, broke up naval defenses, and blockaded towns under siege. A triangular lateen sail, fixed on a long yard extending down almost to the forward deck and reaching high above the masthead, enabled a sailing ship to maneuver more skillfully. Round ships with high prows and even higher sterns, and a castle or superstructure for cabins set in the stern, are illustrated in the Cantigas de Santa Maria; there were two masts with lateen sails with a crow’s nest atop each mast, and a side paddle rudder for steering. A row boat seems to have been essential for getting to land or rescuing the crew if the ship began to sink. Many of the other sailing ships mentioned in the sources are likely variations of this basic model. The galley, lightly built and propelled by oarsmen, was also equipped with a mast and sail to take advantage of the wind. Noted for its speed and maneuverability, it was preferred for naval warfare. The Cantigas depicts several galleys with one tier of oarsmen, usually twelve on each side.

Although Bishop Diego Gelmírez recruited Genoese and Pisan shipbuilders who built at least two galleys to repel Saracen pirates, the consistent use of naval power on the Galician coast was in the future. The first Christian naval forces deployed against the Muslims came not from the peninsula, but from Italy. In 1113 the Pisans provided most, if not all, of the 200 to 300 ships used in the Mallorcan Crusade. A Genoese fleet of sixty-three galleys and 163 other ships collaborated in the siege of Almería (the count of Barcelona contributed one ship) and later in conquering Tortosa. About 164 to 200 crusading ships participated in the conquest of Lisbon, while some fifty-five to seventy-four northern ships aided the capture of Silves; about 180 northern ships joined in the siege of Alcácer do Sal.

Only in the thirteenth century did the Christian rulers develop their own naval power. The necessity to defend the Catalan coast against pirates encouraged shipbuilding, and during the reign of Jaime I shipyards were constructed at Barcelona. Two years before setting out for Mallorca, he prohibited the use of foreign ships to carry goods from Barcelona when Catalan ships were available. In 1229 he could rely almost entirely on ships from Barcelona, Tarragona, and Tortosa, and an armed galley provided by the abbot of San Feliu de Guixols. All told there were, by his reckoning, “150 capital ships” and many smaller boats, including twenty-five naus, eighteen tarides, twelve galleys, and 100 others. After the conquest of Mallorca he appointed an admiral named Carroz. During the Valencian Crusade ships transported supplies and siege engines along the coast. When the emir of Tunis in 1238 dispatched a relieving fleet of eighteen ships the king assembled three armed galleys and seven other vessels to repel them.

A Castilian fleet of about thirteen naves and galleys from the Bay of Biscay, organized by Ramón Bonifaz of Burgos, collaborated in the siege of Seville. Near the mouth of the Guadalquivir they defeated thirty Muslim vessels. The Muslims vainly attempted to block the river by means of a large raft, full of jars loaded with Greek fire. As the Christians moved up river they broke the chain linking a bridge of boats stretching from the city to the suburb of Triana on the west bank. After the fall of Seville Alfonso X, taking up the project for an African Crusade, reconstructed the old Muslim shipyards, and contracted with twenty-one ship captains, each of whom pledged to maintain a galley manned by 100 armed men. Afonso III also employed a Portuguese fleet to thwart any attempt by Muslim galleys to relieve Faro.

In conclusion, the general strategy of reconquest, now overlaid with the crusading indulgence, aimed first at the devastation of enemy territory by raids carried out by small or large forces. Next, castles, cities, and towns were taken through sieges, or after victory on the battlefield. Although truces were often set, the Christians had to be ready to resume hostilities at any moment. Castles had to be garrisoned and supplied; troops had to be alert to the summons to war and prepared to pass muster with appropriate arms and armor. Warfare involved everyone: kings, nobles, clerics, Military Orders, and town militias, though it is almost impossible to estimate the size of any given army. Fines or other heavy punishments helped to maintain military discipline and both kings and popes enacted laws prohibiting the sale of goods that Muslims might eventually use against Christians. The outcome of war might be victory or defeat, and surely resulted in death, wounding, or capture for many, whose number cannot be calculated. Booty, one of the rewards of victory and a means of personal enrichment, was closely regulated by royal and municipal law. Care of the wounded and redemption of captives were characteristic functions of hospitals established for that purpose. Crusading fleets played a significant role in the capture of coastal towns, but in the thirteenth century the peninsular rulers were able to organize their own fleets.

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